Stephen Marche, Is Facebook making us lonely?, The Atlantic, May 2012
I don’t think online social networks are making us lonelier, but then I don’t think that’s what the author is saying, either. It’s more complicated than the title implies (which is probably true of all titles).
There are some interesting ideas in this article. But the bit I want to focus on is this:
Loneliness is at the American core, a by-product of a long-standing national appetite for independence: The Pilgrims who left Europe willingly abandoned the bonds and strictures of a society that could not accept their right to be different. They did not seek out loneliness, but they accepted it as the price of their autonomy. […]
The drive for isolation has always been in tension with the impulse to cluster in communities that cling and suffocate. The Pilgrims, while fomenting spiritual rebellion, also enforced ferocious cohesion.
I grew up in a farming community where everybody knew everybody else and half of us were related to each other (seriously; it sounds like some sort of yokel joke, but half the population was descended from my ancestors who were early settlers).
Whenever I see rhapsodies about the supposedly strong communities of the past, I think back to my childhood: when everybody’s business was public news – through chit-chat between families and neighbours, not because anybody actually talked to you. The idea that people had closer friendships back then is rubbish, or it certainly was in my community. I didn’t have any friendships (unless I count my sisters) because there were no other girls my age. And none of the adults I knew had friendships I’d call “close”, other than with their husband or wife (which was regarded as private and between the two of them, so nobody knew about that either). All they had were strong obligations, and conversations at social functions: church every week; Red Cross meetings for women; dairy and farming association meetings for men; the tennis competition in winter; school events or Parents & Citizen meetings. As far as I heard, their conversations were about everyday matters, not personal ones. It’s possible they used the phone for private conversations, but, at least when I was a very small child, the phone lines were shared (I think they were called party lines; it was possible other people could listen in).
I think we all had an ease in public which felt in a way like friendship – a sense of belonging and physical safety – that came from seeing the same people over and over, every week, every year, and knowing they’d help in an emergency if called upon to do so. But an emergency was the only time you’d call on them.
Parts of that life were good, and parts were suffocating.
And now I think one of the reasons I became such a loner was that I didn’t want to get dragged into such a tight little knot of “community”. I didn’t want to be known, because to be known was to be owned. (There’s probably something wrong with that notion, but so far I haven’t worked out what.) The only way to be independent was to be alone.
The article just made me think of all these things again for a while, so it was a useful prompt.
And before reading that article, I read a blog post which was replying to it:
Zeynep Tufekci, Does Facebook cause loneliness? Short answer, No. Why are we discussing this? Long answer below., technosociology, 16 April 2012
It introduces the new-to-me concept of cyberasociality: “the inability or unwillingness of some people to relate to others via social media as they do when physically-present”.
I’ve seen lots of people talk about online interaction as being not “real” – a distinction I couldn’t understand. But maybe cyberasociality explains why people say that. In my own words (and I might be misinterpreting this, so beware), just as we have to convert a word into its meaning (to recognise that the word “tree” means an actual tree), so we have to convert online interaction into an experience that feels like face-to-face interaction. And some people just can’t do that. It’s not that they don’t want to, it’s just that they can’t.
…for those who are cyberasocial, trying to describe online social interaction as ‘real’ is like trying to describe colors on a oil-painting to someone who is color-blind indoors – and then to claim that there is a connection between the colors on the palette to colors of a sunny day.
They look, they squint, they think, they ponder and simply decide everyone else is crazy.
Dunno. But it’s interesting.